Is it my baggage and if so, how do I unpack it?


This week's damali ayo lecture has left my head spinning. Bear with me while I try to sort my thoughts, please?

I'd known of damali's work for a few years, but this was the first time I'd seen her perform. As I expected, she's wickedly funny, extremely articulate, exceptionally bright, and undeniably charismatic. In her talk, "Shut up and change: A life as a social change artist," she walked us through her childhood, her art projects and performance pieces, her heroes, the negative and hostile response to her work, her six-year struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome, and her recent decision to "pass on" her anti-racist projects so that she can focus on yoga teacher training.

I'm sure I wasn't alone in feeling deep compassion for (and understanding of) her struggles around chronic fatigue, for the burnout that seems to inevitably come with agitating for social change. I was thrilled that she spoke to the power of yoga and whole foods to heal out bodies and minds (and when I say "whole foods," I'm referring to whole grains and plant foods, not the union-busting grocery chain). She demonstrated her capacity for compassion and understanding when she explained a revelation that came to her recently:  When she was forced to work with someone she didn't really like, she realized that she said she didn't need to like her; she just needed to love her. I know I could certainly benefit from remembering to approach interpersonal conflicts like this.

I'm grateful I had the chance to meet her and hear her story. 

But... this is where the hard part comes... and this is also the part where I make clear that I am speaking for myself here, not "on behalf of Bitch." I don't know if it's my own baggage getting in the way, but overall I found her talk problematic and, at times, offensive.

Like her repeated and explicit correlations between happiness and "marriage" (she explained that she's not married yet, but would like to be, and she won't be truly happy until she is).  And when she attempted to back up her beliefs that marriage and happiness are correlated and explain her decision to move on from anti-racist activism by displaying photos of her heroes bell hooks and Adrian Piper, telling us that they're alone/unmarried -- and presumably unhappy -- because they're so focused on their work.

Or when she explained that she needed to lose weight so she could have a kick-ass "bikini body" (when asked during the Q &A why she felt she needed to lose weight when she was already so small, she explained that she wanted to find some sense of happiness in light of the fact that her friends were getting married [and thus happy]).

Or when she quoted bell hooks' use of the term "white supremacy" more than once without contextualizing it with the other two terms that are critical to an understanding of it: "capitalist" and "patriarchy." As in "white supremacist capitalist patriarchy," the idea of a system of interlocking oppressions.


Later that night, when her talk started sinking in, I became angry.

I started writing a blog post, but then I started to question myself for my reactions. Do I have a right to be angry when someone equates marriage with happiness? Do I have a right to question someone else's relationship to their body?  

No, many would say, I don't. 

And yet I am angry, and I am questioning this particular conception of feminism. 

Angry at hearing this idea that marriage equals happiness, and marriage based upon hetero relationships. The idea of, ultimately, promoting an idea of happiness that's exclusionary. 

And while I can relate to the feeling of happiness that comes with being comfortable in one's own body and the idea that no one else but ourselves can know what shape our bodies take that lead to that comfort, angry that again we're back to this idea that thin bodies are the bodies that are valued (well, not that we were ever "away" from this idea).  

Isn't a necessary part of feminism working to dismantle ideas that provoke further internalizing, questioning, and insecurities about things like our relationship status (or worse, our marital status), our physical appearance, our body size? Fighting to liberate ourselves from things like hetero-normative assumptions, oppressive conventions, and body and mind colonization?

Maybe not. Because lately I keep hearing people say things like, "Feminism is all about individual choice," or, "The great thing about feminism is that you can be this kind of feminist and I can be this kind of feminist and we can work for change side by side."

But is it?  How?  

It's not that I'm seeking to create a monolith, a kind of feminism where everyone agrees and there's no individual difference. But this clearly isn't working either.

And beyond the focus of valuing marriage and thin bodies lies a deeper problem: People picking and choosing the parts of oppression and liberation that relate to them as individuals, talking only about the oppression that they as individuals face. Not connecting it to a larger picture of oppression and the power systems that stand in the way of liberation.

I understand that damali's work focuses on race, but focusing only on the "white supremacy" part and leaving out the "capitalist patriarchy" part is a prime and unfortunate example of this, and illustrates what's going awry in the world of feminism(s). A severe lack of inclusion, a selective focus on certain identities at the expense of others that are equally valid, equally painful. Because the whole point is understanding the ways in which white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy work together to create an interlocking system of oppression. 


I understand the dangers of "policing" boundaries. I understand that the ability to self-identify is critical to any hope of a peaceful and just world. 

But I also understand what happens when social change movements become watered down. They're sold back to us as shells of what they originally were.

And to me, one of the ways that feminism continues to be watered down is by leaving out necessary parts of a whole thought/idea, perpetuating exlusion, preventing liberation. Positioning any individual choice as "feminist," regardless of its implications on the rest of the world.   


I don't know. I don't have the answers, just a lot of questions and discontent. Maybe my discontent is a reflection of my own tiredness from agitating for social change. Maybe my sense of love, compassion, and understanding is freezing into its own shell of "my" conception of feminism.

by Debbie Rasmussen
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7 Comments Have Been Posted

Thank you so much for aptly

Thank you so much for aptly articulating how I was feeling and have been feeling since ayo's talk on Tuesday. I left feeling frustrated and unsure that it was valid frustration because I really appreciated the work that ayo has done. However, I am a person of size who does not equate working hard at activism with working hard to achieve a body size that I may never have. Activists come in many shapes and forms and this very necessary work toward change is absolutely not the same as being"fit" (read:thin).

Additionally, I was saddened that ayo is now working for 24 Hour Fitness, a large chain and said so unapologetically. I know folks need to get paid, but is that what activists are reduced to?

Your courage


I appreciate your thoughts a great deal. There is so much wrapped up in conversations that bring unpopular opinions to light. Treading into waters thick with wounds from layers of oppression makes for sticky steps. To move beyond the norm, to pull ideas and concepts into the light - requires courage. Thank you for expressing your feelings because it begins a vital conversation. It opens the door to talking about the crossroads of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and the socialized norms that pack these realities deep down into the box of oppression.

Damali certainly brings to light the power of norms. These norms are so entrenched in the collective “us” that it is often hard to let go of the promises that they offer to bring. Promises no more grounded in truth than what political candidates say prior to the election. But yet, the pull to want these things to act as keys to our happiness is so powerful. We want to believe that happiness is out there, because if it is not… we have to look within ourselves.

The capitalistic patriarchy works very hard to keep self reflection from occurring. It works to keep sticky-footed conversations from making it into the “mainstream” consciousness by using sexism, racism, heterosexism, ageism, gender discrimination, white privilege, and all stereotypes possible to reinforce myths, concepts and ideologies about how we should be, who is the most valuable and who is the least worthy.

I don’t know the answers either. But it seems that until the questions are actually asked, like you have presented, people don’t have the opportunity to contemplate responses that are not filtered through mediated, socialized portrayals of truths, norms, and righteousness. Power structures and thier mass marketing must be questioned... always.

Thank you for starting the conversation.



not all change is good change

I totally agree with what you said, whole-heartedly. One thing that I would like to add, in regards to her “pitch” for money at the end, was how she specifically said that she was taking a “quarter less” of the money that she is used to getting for public speaking. Like she was doing bitch a favor to come and speak. And if this is so, then maybe she should have been making a pitch for bitch and the PSU Women’s Resource Center, instead of herself. Especially because she included that she just got a job working at 24-hour fitness. YAY! Well no, I don’t think so. Look here to find out many complaints about the 24-hour gym (and yes of course, most businesses are subject to complaints, but like this?)

and when they are called “pushy and harassing”, a “consumer fraud”, “unhealthy scams”, “rude treatment and the worst employees”, “stolen funds! Plain ordinary rip-off!” I feel ok judging someone’s choices for working at such a place like that, especially while the same person speaks hand-in-hand about “feeling healthy”. Sounds contradictory to me. What about promoting and supporting healthy environments? To me, that is embedded in the idea of feeling healthy.

I don’t feel like I need to add anything else. Yr post really covered my own thoughts and feelings. It was a brave post. We need to have more conversations that critique and question the ways about how we bring change to the current lack-of unified social movements, change that needs to be inclusive. Not just give high fives to folks that are making any kind of change, because not all change is good change.

i think there's widespread misconception...

of what bitch is and how it functions -- many folks don't know, for instance, that we're a nonprofit, that we have a very small staff, and that we don't have have a lot of financial resources. i'd like to think this is why she made her pitch at the end, but yes i, too, was rather dismayed.

some background on this lecture series: bitch was able to launch this series thanks to a grant from the Oregon Council for the Humanities. all of the funding is split between four speakers; bitch isn't "pocketing" any of this money. it's worth pointing out that the speaking fee we're able to offer each person is significantly more than anyone at bitch has ever gotten for our speaking events (in fact, up until this point, for the most part there's been no fee given to us for our speaking work). but for someone on the "professional lecture circuit," i'm sure what we're able to offer doesn't compare to what colleges/universities and private businesses can offer.

regarding someone's workplace though: i hear what you're saying, but i don't think it's fair to hold someone responsible for the crap the company they work for is doing. from what i've heard, the entry into the world of teaching yoga isn't exactly easy, so i imagine people need to take what they can get.

that and...

I think its worth being aware of the rat race phenomena...virtually all of us struggling for justice and social change face an uphill battle financially.

The people we should be frustrated with are unethical rich folks who spend 100,000's and millions on a life of luxury while oppression of all sorts run rampant, and moreover the power structures that keep us in a deeply unequal world.

Those of us not living the high life, who are far from the owner classes and other elites, have got to stick together even if little things people do about money rub us the wrong way...

Thanks, Debbie

What a thoughtful post - Thanks for sharing your thoughts and honesty. It certainly sounds like the talk provoked a lot of conversation.

These are difficult thoughts to share

These are difficult thoughts to share and I really admire your courage.

It may be true that you have no right to be angry at someone for wanting to have a certain kind of body - but you can be angry that she chose to share her goal of conforming to beauty standards with a roomful of people she doesn't know, many of whom are probably struggling to resist body image conditioning and feel good with what they got. She has the right to struggle privately in her own way, but it seems she was being oblivious about the impact of her words on others.

I've been thinking about a lot of these things lately, especially pertaining to the compartmentalization of our experiences of oppression; how that affects our ability to create strong resistance movements. How it impacts our ability to connect with one another in truly supportive, constructive ways - even to have open, productive conversations.

It's as though we believe there's a limit on how much change will ever occur, or a finite supply of justice or something - if I acknowledge that you are suffering for different reasons than I, then maybe your situation will be addressed first and nobody will ever get around to helping me. So I better just act like my pain, and the pain of those in similar circumstances to mine, is the most important kind to address. We want to make prioritized lists of each of our separate struggles. But none of them are separate, no matter how different they may look on the surface. As you say, oppressions are all intertwined and depend upon one another to uphold the power structure.

It's hard because clearly a lot of our defensiveness comes from experiencing oppression from people we thought were our allies. Trying to reach out only to be hurt when you were least expecting it. This creates a strong desire to withdraw to the group you think is most likely to understand your pain and not hurt you in the same ways as those who haven't shared your experience of oppression. Makes you cling tighter to the validity of your personal experience, because so many don't see it that you fear it might be forgotten.

But even understanding where some of our insular tendencies come from, I still have a hard time grasping how so many folks struggling for justice of one kind or another don't educate themselves about other struggles. Or don't take steps to address their conditioning and knee-jerk oppression of others. Don't take other oppressions seriously because they don't own the experience personally or something, I dunno.

Most of us could use some conscious effort toward developing empathy, and becoming aware of how our language/behavior might contribute to an oppressive environment for anyone else. If you've been burned trying to build coalitions in the past and want to be insular, or you don't have the energy to join struggles you don't identify with, or what have you - that's fine. We don't all have to row the same boat. But there's no reason why you can't actively refuse to add to others' oppression at the same time. You don't have to steal other people's oars to get you some justice.

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